One of the most difficult things about living with chronic pain and illness is that life must go on no matter how terrible you feel. We must eat, drink, and have shelter – these things are fundamental requirements for living. (Along with coffee, yes?) Yet, those of us that are chronically ill know that cooking with chronic pain can be extraordinarily difficult, especially if you also have dietary restrictions, suffer from appetite loss, or are trying to feed a family. For me, cooking with chronic pain is comparable to working out when I was healthy. So in this post I’m sharing tips that have helped me throughout my chronic illness journey.
Tips for Cooking with Chronic Pain.
1 | Cook in batches.
So many recipes begin with the same instructions, such as “brown one pound of ground beef in a pan” or “boil and shred one pound of chicken breasts”. The repetition of prepping meat for each meal has always driven me a bit nuts, but it was suddenly a huge energy drain after I became chronically ill. Thanks to batch cooking, I have replaced that first instruction with simply thawing out my fully cooked meat the night before.
To batch cook ground beef I spread it evenly in a deep pan, cover it with aluminum foil, and cook in the oven at 375˚F for 30 minutes (ish). If you purchase high fat content meat you may want to use a rack inside the pan. I cook meat in the oven instead of a pan because I don’t have to physically manipulate it (which results in joint pain) throughout the process to make sure it cooks evenly.
Once the meat has cooled, I strain it and set up my food processor. I add approximately half a pound of meat to the food processor at a time and pulse it for just a few seconds. This saves my hands from the manually chopping up the meat, since I like my ground beef to be finely crumbled. I dump all of the meat into a large bowl, and then divide it into freezer bags with one pound in each bag. I freeze them lying flat so that later I can easily stack them into bins in my freezer.
I cook around four pounds of boneless skinless chicken breasts at a time in my crockpot for either six hours on high or ten hours on low. Either way, I plan for the chicken to be finished cooking by 6pm so that I can finish prepping before I get too tired in the evening. After its cooled, I add two pieces of chicken at a time to a large bowl and use my hand mixer to shred it. Not only does this technique shred two chicken breasts in about 15 seconds, but I no longer have to use my fingers to manually shred the meat. Instead, I complete the pain-free shredding process in minutes, divide the chicken into labeled bags, and put it in the freezer for later.
I primarily batch cook chicken and ground beef because that’s what we eat most often. However, there are plenty of other options out there such as batch cooking stew meat, pork, or pot roast. Simply choose a few things that you eat frequently and optimize your own batch cooking method.
2| Make double portions.
For a long time I was sure that frozen meals wouldn’t taste very good. I no longer had the luxury of feeling that way once I began cooking with chronic pain (fortunately, my freezer meals have tasted fine so far). Now I double meals whenever I can and freeze half for later. Prepping twice the ingredients doesn’t take much additional time or energy – just a bit of extra planning – in exchange for a huge reward. I’m always thankful later in the month when I don’t have to cook as often.
But don’t just stick to doubling the obvious things, like spaghetti – keep looking for ways to get more done with less physical effort. For example, I always create an extra batch of dry ingredients when I’m making banana bread waffles. There are seven dry ingredients in that recipe, so it really cuts down on the time I spend taking things out of my pantry, measuring them, and then cleaning up the mess next time I make the waffles.
3| Only invest in a few quality gadgets.
Most of the posts I’ve read about cooking with chronic pain are gadget-centric. In my opinion, having lots of kitchen gadgets doesn’t necessarily make cooking with chronic pain easier. It’s better to have less to store, less to clean, and less to worry about in general. Ninety nine percent of the time I only need my crockpot, hand mixer, and food processor to make cooking easier. This is partly because I can use my food processor for so many different things, such as:
- creating creamy sauces
- mincing leafy greens
- crumbling ground beef
- making frozen yogurt
- mashing food (such as carrots for my bird or bananas for my waffles)
- chopping vegetables (just be careful to pulse them or you’ll end up with mush)
I love my food processor because it saves me from having to use my hands to do things in the kitchen. Take a moment and think about what you really need for your own cooking style. If you do purchase a new gadget, then try to choose a high-quality, multifunctional item.
4| Be strategic.
It is essential to work strategically in the kitchen when you struggle with things like chronic pain, fatigue, and brain fog. Here are some of the ways I’m strategic in streamlining my cooking process.
Use the same ingredients.
I learned this technique from my friend Emily over at The Unprepared Kitchen. She uses a recipe pairing concept where you cook several different meals using the same base ingredients. This saves time and energy throughout the entire cooking process – from the initial shopping trip to the last meal of the week. My favorite base ingredients are chicken, buffalo sauce, and vegetables. In one week I can use these to make buffalo chicken salad, tacos, dip, casserole – the list goes on.
Bonus: You can try out Emily’s meal plans for free at The Unprepared Kitchen.
Try one pot recipes.
One pot recipes are an ingenious way to use less dishes while still creating a delicious meal. Melissa from No. 2 Pencil has an entire section of her blog dedicated to one pot meals.
Save it for later.
If I only need half an onion for a recipe, I’ll quickly run the other half through my food processor and freeze it in water to use later. I freeze leftover wine, chicken broth, bananas, coffee, spinach – really anything that can be safely frozen. Be sure to look up the best way to freeze each food item and label storage bags accurately. It also helps to keep a list of what you have in the freezer so you don’t have to go on a scavenger hunt when you need something.
I try to pay close attention to what I’m doing in the kitchen (and why) instead of cooking on autopilot. This way I can analyze my process and hopefully find ways to improve it. When I can, I cook in the morning when my mind is typically clearer and more alert.
5| Grocery shop like a pro.
The cooking process begins at the grocery store. One thing I’ve learned is that I need to grocery shop and cook on different days, because trying to do both in one day really wears me out.
Since going to the grocery store can be so difficult for me, I shop in bulk and keep extras of things I use regularly. I have a storage space in my pantry for extras such as buffalo sauce, applesauce, aluminum foil, etc., and I add them to my grocery list once I’ve taken the extra out to use. This helps me because I can go shopping less frequently and not have to worry about running out of things I need.
I also recommend using delivery services if they are available to you. I’m a big fan of ordering Amazon Prime Pantry Boxes and my local grocery store (Harris Teeter) has grocery pickup and delivery services for reasonable prices. Anytime I don’t have to walk around the store or carry heavy bags home is a win for me.
But what about those times when you can’t go grocery shopping at all? I often find myself sitting at home while my husband goes grocery shopping alone. If you have to send someone to the store for you, try to give very detailed instructions on what to purchase. Don’t just say “almond milk”, say “unsweetened original Silk almond milk in the large container”. This prevents accidental purchases, food waste, and multiple trips to the store. Also, try using a list application such as Google Keep, which can be shared with the person who is shopping for you. I gradually add items to my grocery list throughout the week and, since I’ve added him as a contributor, Mr. Meena can access the list directly from his phone when he is at the store. I don’t have to worry about forgetting to tell him I need something in the moment thanks to brain fog.
Finally, be gentle with yourself. Don’t worry if your food doesn’t look pretty or if you haven’t tried a new recipe in a while. Just do the best you can and know that it’s okay to eat cereal for dinner when you need to. While these techniques help me to be more independent (and I know my husband appreciates it when I can successfully make dinner by myself), my health always comes first when it comes to cooking with chronic pain.
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